Monday, November 14, 2011

Play: Group Therapy

Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, directed by Andrea Allen, Seattle Rep until November 20th

Let me get to the point here: I didn't care much for the play, but the acting was amazing. And there will be a dissenting opinion.

CMT is an actor's play. That is both to say that it is about acting and actors, and that it is also a great opportunity for actors to act. As the former, it shows all the indulgent nature that makes me dislike plays about actors. As the latter it shines.

The setting for the play is the community center in Shelby, Vermont, which is to playwright Baker what Lake Woebegone is to Garrison Keillor. Five people are gathered together for a six-week acting class - Queen bee and instructor Marty, her understanding husband James, effusive new-to-town Theresa, wallflower teen Lauren and relationship wreck Shultz. And the acting class consists of acting exercises as opposed to reading and portraying particular parts. Now, acting exercises are all about making the actor comfortable with his body, with what can be done with it, and translating the natural of everyday life translate onto the unnatural of a stage with people watching. Acting exercises are also pretty silly-looking to the uninformed (a group including most of the rest of us). And the exercises here are live social grenades that, in the hands of an Albee, would kick off screaming fits. Over the course of the play you are sort of waiting for the screaming fits to set in, as many of these exercises kick off the internal response of "Oh, yeah. THIS is going to end well".

And things go about how you'd expect. Relationship wreck and effusive new-to-town get together, old marrieds fall apart, wallflower blossoms. And there is nothing wrong with all this, but it just takes forever. Portrayed in a series of blackout sketches over a period of weeks, you feel time crawl like you are, well, watching an acting class and waiting for the drama to really start.

This problem is the writer's domain, but is made even more excruciating by the director's pacing. Leisurely is a kind way of describing it. The long pauses, the interrupted conversations, the frequent black-outs, it feels like the writer and director are actually getting in the way of the play itself, preventing forward motion because otherwise, things would wrap up too swiftly. Keillor keeps his radio bits to about twenty minutes. At two hours, the play feels thick and ponderous (and the play lacks an intermission because there is no Act 1 cliffhanger, and polite escapees among the audience are thereby foiled).

The actors, though. Ah, the actors. Michael Patten as Shultz is freaking brilliant in his slack-jawed thoughtfulness, a deep and real portrayal - yeah, I know this guy. Heck, there are days I've BEEN this guy. Anastasia Higham as Lauren is amazing as well, and for all its sins, the play has to be commended for taking the time to let her move out of her shell and become the center of the play itself. Of course, you're still an hour in while she's bunched up in a fetal squat as the others carry on, but her blossoming is one of the things that makes this a comedy (in the classic sense - with a upbeat ending).

This is not to slight Gretchen Krich as queen bee Marty, a woman looking for activity in her life, and Elizabeth Raetz as the larger-than life former actress, who holds the fort as the center of attention before acceding it to Lauren. And Peter A. Jacobs as the husband James, obviously the guy who was dragged into this and is being supportive, hits a lot of the right notes. All three sell us on very real, very human character- they are actors portraying people who are learning to act, and you can feel their diverse reasons and emotions.

Now, as mentioned at the start, the theater department at Grubbstreet is in dispute about this play - the Lovely Bride thought it was brilliant throughout, and gave it a (one-person) standing ovation at the end (yep that was her). She felt that this was an accurate portrayal of life - how is lingers, waits, and moves forward in stops and starts. I agree that it does all that, but disagrees that such a portrayal is good theater. We are agreed, however, that the actors are just bloody brilliant, and we both want to see them all again.

More later,